About a month ago, Universities Canada held a meeting to talk up the Liberal Arts. I wasn’t there, and can only go by what I saw on twitter and what I can glean from this University Affairs article which you can read here. But if the conversation was actually anything like what the sub-head suggests it was (we need better stories!), I’m not impressed.
At one level, “we need better stories” is always true. Good communication is always worthwhile. But if you claim that’s all you need then basically you’re saying that actual changes in practices are not necessary. We here in academia are fine, it’s you ignorant lot out there who are the problem – and once we tell better stories, you will see the light. It’s arrogant, frankly. More introspection about needed pedgagogical changes and less “we need better stories”, please (I note that Mount Allison’s Robert Campbell at least took that tack – good on him).
Moreover if you look at the “good” stories that Arts faculties want to tell, you’ll find they’re pretty much all about how various social scientists have changed public policy. Very little is about the humanities (a result perhaps of the usual Canadian confusion about the distinction between “Arts”, “Liberal Arts” and “Humanities”). At best, you get some vague words about how humanities promotes “soft skills”, which frankly isn’t very helpful. Partly that’s because “soft skills” as a term is somewhat gendered (and thus likely to turn off males) and partly because there’s very little evidence that humanities education does much to foster that cluster of personality traits, social graces, and all that other stuff which clusters around “emotional intelligence”. It’s possible – maybe even likely – that humanities graduates might possess these skills, but that may simply be a question of who chooses to enter these fields rather than what skills get developed by the disciplines.
Yet I think there is a simple and unambiguous way to sell the humanities: they are not about soft skills, they are about “fuzzy skills”. They are about ambiguity. They are about pattern recognition. They are about developing and testing hypotheses in areas of human affairs where evidence is always partial and never clear-cut. Humanities graduates are not about following rules; they are about interpreting rules when the context changes.
And you know what? Doing that kind of interpretation well is *hard*. The worst mistake the humanities have ever made is accepting the public impression that not being an “exact” science means humanities are “easy”. They are not. Good work in the humanities is hard precisely because there are many possible answers to a question. The difficulty lies in sifting the more plausible from the less plausible (unless of course you dive completely into the post-modernist “I’m OK you’re OK” intellectual rathole where every answer is equally correct; then humanities is just nonsense).
Think about the world of espionage and intelligence: this is extraordinarily difficult work precisely because we never have enough information and empathy to know exactly what a target is thinking or might be doing. But it is precisely the synthesis of information from across a wide range of disciplines, and the close reading of texts – what we used to call philology- that allows us to make competent guesses. Quantitative data analysis is useful in this (and lord knows we probably shouldn’t let humanities students graduates without some understanding of statistics and probability); but so too are the basic “fuzzy skills” taught in humanities programs. When business talks about “critical thinking” skills it is precisely this kind of analysis and decision-making, writ small, that they are talking about.
I think that’s a pretty good story for the humanities. The problem is that for these good stories to work, humanities faculties have to live up to them. Simply telling a good story isn’t enough. Curricula (and more importantly assessment) need to be re-designed in order to show how these fuzzy skills are actually being taught and absorbed. No more assuming students get these non-disciplinary skills by osmosis because “everybody knows” that’s what humanities do. Design for fuzzy skills. Incorporate them. Measure them.
And then you’ll have both a good story and a good reality. That would be real and welcome progress.